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GreenBiz 101

Tree planting 101: What corporations need to know

Trees growing in money

Corporate money can go a long way with tree planting efforts if they invest in the right way.Image via Shutterstock

Tree planting has a long history in the corporate and charitable world. Funding tree-planting projects is a safe and inoffensive strategy for the philanthropic arm of many large businesses. Companies wanting to make a long term impact will work with nonprofits to choose a project or two that meets the company’s goals and set up recurring funding. Others might just write a one-off check and let the tree-planting organization choose where to put the money without any input. But as wildfires destroy more forests, fossil fuels continue to pump carbon emissions in the air and many companies announce net-zero carbon emissions commitments, tree-planting projects are moving away from serving as PR fodder to becoming an integral part of corporate sustainability strategy. 

"As net-zero strategies become core, then the role of natural climate solutions is increasing and has a different type of priority," said Nicole Schwab, co-director of 1t.org, a platform under the World Economic Forum mobilizing private sector investment in forest conservation and restoration. "They are looking at its role in supply chain, risk management and anticipating regulations. There (are) a number of factors that are moving [tree-planting] from a philanthropic issue to more of a core issue." 

1t.org currently has pledges from 77 companies including AstraZeneca, Capgemini, Mastercard, Nestle, PepsiCo, Salesforce, SAP, Shell, Suzano, Teck Resources Ltd., tentree, Unilever and UPS to commit to planting a trillion trees globally by 2030. 

There are many other misconceptions, confusions and tactical details companies should know about tree-planting. Here’s how to avoid those pitfalls when getting started with a tree-planting effort.

Know why you’re involved

With so many options, companies need to have a clear goal for the planting project and select the right partner for that goal. 

"The guiding principle is, No. 1, know why you’re planting trees and be able to prove impact," said John Lotspeich, executive director for Trillion Trees. "What are you planting trees for as a corporation? What are you trying to achieve?"

Some companies might be trying to meet biodiversity requirements. A paper company might be combating deforestation. Tree-planting might just simply align with a company's mission like an outdoor brand’s focus on recreation in nature.

According to Owen Hewlett, chief technical officer of Gold Standard, a nonprofit voluntary carbon offset verification organization, a main thinking that is making tree planting attractive to companies is they see them as the key to making net-zero commitments. 

If a company is looking for a tree-planting project to serve as an offset to meet its net-zero commitment, the project has to have much more intense monitoring and evaluation of the carbon sequestered in order to use it in its carbon accounting. So corporations might have trouble finding a quality and verifiable one. 

"There’s a paucity of supply right now," Lotspeich said. "There aren't enough carbon credits out there for what everyone wants. There’s a real tension. People are getting more excited but the reality is most of our credits are either spoken for or about to be spoken for."

But planting trees should not be a pass to continue emitting carbon as usual. Tree planting should be part of an overall strategy that first focuses on reducing emissions throughout operations as much as possible and then offsets the rest using other mechanisms. Companies need to have emissions reduction commitments in addition to tree planting projects. According to Schwab, even just to be a part of 1t.org, companies must have a Paris-aligned climate goal to keep warming to 2 or 1.5 degrees. 

Find the right partner

Along with 1t.org and Trillion Trees, the joint venture by the World Wildlife Fund, BirdLife and the Wildlife Conservation Society, dozens of other tree-planting organizations enlist corporations for funding including Arbor Day, American Forests, American Forest Foundation, The Nature Conservancy and many other local or niche non-profits. How can you find a partner that aligns with your company’s interests and culture?

For example, Salesforce has partnered with American Forests on many tree planting projects for restoring burn scars across the sierras in California. HP partnered with the World Wildlife Fund to conserve and restore 1 million acres of forests around the world. Bank of America worked with Arbor Day to focus on tree planting in urban environments around their headquarters to protect surrounding communities from heat. It’s about matching the companies goals to the nonprofits and allowing both sides to be flexible. 

There are partnerships where the corporation is only supplying the money and the trees are planted by professional crews. Other companies might want to get their own employees included in the planting process or work with youth for educational purposes.

Mongabay created a Reforestation Directory to help companies sort through over 350 tree-planting projects in 80 countries to find what is the best fit. The directory uses the forest Landscape Restoration approach as its bases for evaluating the projects. But the directory is entirely self-reported with no third party verifications. There are many other factors to take into consideration when choosing a project, including where the seedlings are produced, the time frame, the location, the types of trees and any other social or nature components such as gender or local community benefits. 

A company can look out for a few simple but essential things when exploring a tree planting partner. According to Austin Rempel, senior manager of reforestation at American Forests, checking to see if an organization has scientists and policy experts on staff can indicate that they are working to have impact at scale. Ask a tree planting organization how it monitors and reports its impact by project and if the projects take climate change adaptation into consideration. Is the organization focused on long-term impact on particular geographies? 

"American Forests learned long ago that we wouldn’t have impact by doing one-off projects anywhere and everywhere, which unfortunately is still the norm for most tree planting organizations," Rempel wrote in an email. "We’d have to focus on specific places and issues for years and decades to make a measurable difference." 

Plant quality trees over quantity

Tree planting organizations have gotten pretty good at planting lots of trees over the past few decades of projects. But planting the right trees in the right places to ensure they survive in a changing climate is a lot more complicated. These days, nonprofits are focusing on planting trees native to the area and adapted to the right altitude and changing climate, something that wasn’t rigorously considered in previous decades. 

And while companies might not be directly planting the trees themselves, it’s important for them not to push the nonprofits for a certain number of trees and instead focus on trees that will survive, thrive and are in the right place.

"One thing I would say that often happens is people think you can put any tree anywhere and that it will count," Lotspeich said. "Not every tree in every place is equal for what you want to do."

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Lotspeich gave the example of projects in West Africa where survival rates are only about 20 percent or for carbon accounting certain thresholds have to be met if that tree is to count against a company's emissions. Not all tree planting projects are equal and neither are all trees. 

According to Rempel, tree-planting projects should be about growing a forest resilient to extreme climates and increased wildfires, not how many trees get into the ground. Matthew Hurteau, a forest and fire ecologist at the University of New Mexico, explained that this means planting trees native to that area and not planting in rows but instead with natural variation in density to avoid wildfire spread among other details. But planting quality over quantity takes more money, time and expertise.

"It’s really important not to push for lower prices per tree," Schwab said. "Like trying to plant the biggest number of trees. It needs to be looked at more in terms of impact."

It’s not $1 per tree

The popular dollar-per-tree model, where a $1 donation plants one tree, isn’t accurate but is still commonly advertised. One Tree Planted, Earth Day’s canopy project, The National Forests Foundation and many others promise to plant one tree for every dollar donated. Plant it 2020, started as an $1-per-tree model in the mid-90s but abandoned that model several years ago because it did not accurately represent costs.  Rempel described how other organizations in other countries would ask him, "How could you possibly plant a tree for $1?" According to him, the answer is that by and large, American Forests has matching funds to cover the cost of preparing the site, and managing it after it has been planted. That dollar really only covers the seedling and sometimes the planting crew.

But these days a lot more projects have to start from the ground up without matching funds, so it costs closer to $5 per tree when including  the site prep, seedling monitoring and labor. 

"There tends to be a sticker shock," said Sarah Schmid, senior manager of corporate giving at American Forests. "The way that American Forests runs, we want to make sure that when we plant those trees, they’re going to be in the ground and are going to be maintained for a couple of years. Our pricing includes two years of maintenance on those trees and site prep work to give those trees the best chance of survival." 

Other complexities and co-benefits can also increase the price. If companies want to plant in urban environments near their headquarters, those trees must be much older and getting them in the ground is much more expensive. Using a youth corps for planting is slower and more expensive than the big professional, usually foreign planting crews, but that’s an investment corporations might want to make to encourage and educate the next generation of leaders and conservationists.

And if a company wants the trees it plants to be recorded as carbon offsets, that will add a lot more cost for reporting and verification. According to Lotspeich, monitoring a tree for two to 10 years in order to be in a position to assign a carbon value to that tree costs much more than a standard dollar. 

Think long term

"There’s a distinction between ‘we’re planting trees’ or ‘we’re growing a forest,'" Schwab said.

A forest is a complex, dynamic and diverse ecosystem. Both Swab and Rempel encouraged companies to move away from thinking about planting to thinking about the entire process, starting at the seed level. 

The seed shortage is a bottleneck for reforestation and corporate money could make a world of difference. Some companies such as Salesforce have started investing in nurseries to help combat the seedling shortage, but experts say more corporate money is needed that focuses on seeds before they are planted into the ground. According to Rempel, a private family foundation, the Paul and June Rossetti Foundation, has actually invested in creating a three-person seed collection crew in New Mexico and Colorado.  

"Over the last couple of decades, we haven’t been keeping up with the [seed] collection," Rempel said. "We’re hitting seed limitations at exactly the wrong time."

"If I could encourage corporations to do anything differently, it would be to focus on the entire process," said Elizabeth Pansing, forest and restoration scientist for American Forests. "An entire package. From planning to seed collection to seedling growth in the nurseries to getting the seedlings in the ground and then monitoring them to make sure that they’re actually doing well."

Beyond seed collection, companies need to work with nonprofits or other partners to help fund nurseries for seedling growth, postfire collection, site prep and long-term monitoring and maintenance once the seedlings are in the ground to ensure they grow into robust trees. 

Rempel highlighted American Forests' partnership with Salesforce and how the company listened to the nonprofits experts about what the forest needed and wasn’t fixated on a certain number of trees. The software company even helped fund a fence to protect a group of natural hot springs from the cattle on the land. Companies need to be flexible and look at more than just the number of trees planted as a worthwhile investment for their money. 

Changing the mindset to thinking of a tree planting project as a package over a period of time instead of thinking in terms of the exact number of trees can fundamentally shift and increase the impact of a tree-planting project. 

"We often talk in terms of trees and we have that as a goal," Max Scher, director of sustainability at Salesforce a corporation that involved tree-planting projects. "But the overarching objective is to conserve and restore ecosystems. And a tree is a proxy for that much more complex goal, which is measured in carbon and biodiversity and the livelihoods of local people. It’s hard to make decisions on a cost-per-tree basis when you have all those other factors to keep in mind. We are getting better about articulating all those different benefits and making them front and center in achieving our goals."

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